Client rejections

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash (544215)

It happens sooner or later to all consulting designers: your client decides not to use your work or — if it’s what they hired you for — take your advice.

Now what?

First of all, remind yourself that as a design professional you’re not taking anything personally. It might also help to remind yourself that contrary to a lot of narratives, it’s not your job to “make the client happy.” Rather it’s your job to solve your client’s problems as best you can. It’s your client’s prerogative to accept or reject your work. There may be a million reasons for a client not to adopt your solutions or take your advice. Whatever the reason, you cannot afford to take it personally.

This brings us to “second of all”: When this happens to you (and it will), try to understand what’s going on with your client. In particular, ask yourself whether you have understood the full context of the client’s problem. If you haven’t and if your new understanding of the client’s context is workable, then iterate and produce new solutions.

If, however, you believe you have understood the client’s problem and have produced good work, then we come to “third of all” and a difficult space to navigate. In this case, it might help to consider what happens in another professional realm: medicine.

No one expects a medical doctor to give advice to “make the patient happy.” Rather, when treatment is required a doctor typically offers up increasingly less preferred alternatives until she arrives at one that is acceptable to the patient. The patient’s reasons for rejecting better alternatives might be sound (“I can’t do weekly therapy sessions because there’s no way I can take that much time off work and not get fired”) or silly (“I can’t do weekly therapy sessions because they conflict with live streams of French salt mine cleaning”).

The point here is that the doctor is willing to produce alternative solutions to try to match the patient’s context — up to a point. Below a certain threshold, a doctor will simply say, “We’re out of options.” And it is this threshold that for designers is often agonizingly difficult to establish. But if you’re a professional, it’s crucially important that you have and respect professional standards. You owe it to the profession, but more than that you owe it to your clients. Clients need to know they can trust you, and if you don’t have standards, they can’t.

When you’re trying to establish your own professional standards, try to keep a couple things in mind:

  • Keep your professional interests in it. Good work will bring in more good work. Substandard work will come back to bite you. “Sure, I did that, but the client made me,” convinced no one, ever.
  • Keep your emotional needs out of it. You’re not a hotshot a**hole who “should” be listened to. But you’re also not so emotionally desperate that you will do anything for approval. Your truth is somewhere in between those extremes. But the ultimate truth is that this is not personal.

If a client consistently rejects your work or advice, it might mean that you need to do a lot more work to better understand them — or they to understand what you are able to do for them. On the other hand, it might mean that the relationship is just not working. Be open to the possibility that there is too big a gulf between your professional standards and what the client wants or is willing to do.

If this is the case, it could mean you just need to break up. While this is the most extreme step and very infrequently the right one, when it is the right one you will be doing yourself and probably also your client a favor by ending things.

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